Initially, numerous indigenous Indians were enslaved, predominantly to work on the sugar cane plantations. Enslavement, displacement and extermination led to the annihilation of many Indian peoples: of an estimated five to six million indigenous people at the time of the arrival of the first Europeans, only about 600,000 remained by the end of the colonial period.
Portugal relinquished its exclusive rights ("Pacto Colonial") to Brazil in 1808, when the Portuguese king, Dom João VI, fled there to escape Napoleon. The country´s harbours were opened to all friendly nations. As a result of a declaration made by João VI, 1818 saw the first official recruitment of European migrants with the aim of colonising Brazil. The slave economy was not in fact ended by Brazil until 1888. By the time the import of slaves was banned in 1850 about five million Africans had been transported to Brazil. European immigrants were now to take over the work of the slaves.
The time of the so-called "big migration" to Brazil began in the second half of the 19th century. The first of three phases of mass immigration (1880 to 1909) lasted until the early years of the 20th century. The immigrants in this phase originated primarily from Europe. The strongest increase was firstly among the Italians with 1,188,883 immigrants (cf. Table 1). However, immigrants also came from Portugal (519,629), Spain (307,591), Germany (49,833), the Middle East (31,061) and, in smaller numbers, from various other countries such as Ukraine, Poland, Russia and Korea. The total number of immigrants in the period after the abolition of slavery was between 50,000 and over 200,000 per year.
In this first phase of mass immigration, European migrants were needed above all as workers in the agricultural sector, for coffee cultivation in Southeast Brazil and later for the spread of industrialisation. The Brazilian upper classes were, moreover, anxious to bring themselves in line culturally, socially and ethnically with Europe through European immigration.
In a second wave of immigration between 1910 and 1929 more than one and a half million migrants entered the country to be employed, once again, in agriculture. The immigrants again originated primarily from Portugal, Italy, Spain, Russia and Germany, many of them looking for a fresh start after the First World War. However, emigration to Brazil has also increased from Syria and Lebanon since the beginning of the 20th century.
After Canada, the USA, Mexico and Argentina had tightened up their immigration conditions in the mid 1920s, Brazil became the main migration destination for the Japanese. By 1929, 86,577 Japanese had arrived in the country, assisted in their emigration by the government in Tokyo, which gave them financial support as well as helping to organise their emigration.
Immigrants in Brazil by country of origin from 1880 to 1969
Source: Lesser, Jeffrey (1999): Negotiating National Identity. Immigrants, Minorities and the Struggle for Ethnicity in Brazil. Duke University Press, Durham & London; eigene Berechnung
From 1930 President Getúlio Vargas operated an immigration policy that aimed primarily at assimilating Brazil's minorities and which made immigration more difficult. To "protect Brazilian identity" the use of foreign languages was forbidden in public life.
The third wave of immigration (1930 – 1969) turned out smaller than those in the preceding decades. The largest group of new immigrants comprising 160,735 persons originated from Japan. For the newly emerged industrial sector, migrants were recruited from Syria and Lebanon in particular. The recruitment of foreign workers ended with the military coup in 1964. Now internal migration gained importance for the country's economic development.
Since the European settlement of Brazil there has repeatedly been immense migration within the country for economic reasons. When, in the 17th century, sugar cane production in the North East slowly subsided, a large part of the population moved towards the new economic centre, Minas Gerais, to work in the gold and diamond mines. Later, when the coffee trade gained momentum in the 19th century, thousands of job seekers followed the growing branch of the economy to Southeast Brazil.
Industrialisation in the 1960s and 1970s brought new jobs and led to a mass exodus from the countryside to the big cities. In the space of a few decades the populations of all the big Brazilian cities exploded. This rural exodus – unique in Latin America in terms of size – was intensified by the great poverty of the peasant population. Strong population growth, agricultural modernisation and the ensuing reduction in job opportunities for farm workers reinforced this process.
The situation was exacerbated in the 1980s by the lack of infrastructure and the hopelessness of acquiring a plot of land. The establishment of capital-rich agricultural companies further widened the gulf between big landowners and subsistence-oriented peasant farmers.
Once industrialisation reached its limits, the major cities in the north, northeast, south and southeast were no longer able to absorb the many job seekers. The high levels of unemployment in the cities have led to the building of slums on their outskirts, which have grown rapidly in the last few decades. In 2006, 84% of the population was living in cities. Since the beginning of 2000 new movement has been observed from the southeastern cities of São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro to the medium-sized towns in the country's interior. Pull factors here are the better job opportunities, lower crime rates and better public service provision. However, the mass exodus from the country into the big cities continues.